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Cahokia ATA-186 - History

Cahokia ATA-186 - History

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Cahokia II

(ATA-186: dp. 886; 1. 143'; b. 33'10"; dr. 13'2"; s. 13 k.;

The second Cahokia (ATA-186) was laid down as, ATR- 113, reclassified ATA-186 on 15 May 1944, and launched 18 September 1944 by Levingston Shipbuilding Co., Orange, Tex., and commissioned 24 November 1944 Lieutenant J. T. Dillon, USNR, in command. She was assigned the name Cahokia 16 July 1948.

Cahokia sailed from Galveston, Tex., 23 December 1944, for the Canal Zone, San Francisco, and then for Pearl Harbor 4 March 1945, and assumed towing duty between Ulithi, Manus, Leyte, the Russell Islands, and Okinawa, until 8 September when she arrived in Tokyo Bay. She supported the occupation of Japan until 14 October, when she sailed from Yokosuka for Okinawa arriving 17 October. She had duty at Okinawa, with a brief period at Shanghai and Jinsen until 22 April 1948. On 4 May Cahokia departed Sasebo for Manus and Pearl Harbor. After almost a month in Pearl, she sailed for San Francisco, arriving 15 July for duty with the 12th Naval District.

Cahokia undertook a variety of assignments through 1960. In January 1951, she assisted in the sinking of Independencene( CVL—22) in an experimental underwater explosion test off San Francisco. Between 16 and 18 June 1954, she delivered water to Alcatraz Penitentiary when the prison's water system failed, and on 1 April 1966, she assisted in quelling a serious fire in San Francisco's Ferry Building. Her duties since have included coastal towing duty, search and rescue operations target towing, and dumping atomic waste material for tee U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory at San Francisco.

Why Did Cahokia, One of North America’s Largest Pre-Hispanic Cities, Collapse?

At its peak around the turn of the first millennium, Cahokia, a city in what is now Illinois, was home to as many as 20,000 people. Members of North America’s Mississippian culture, Cahokia’s residents constructed enormous earthen mounds used alternatively as residences, burial grounds, meeting places and ceremonial centers. Per the Washington Post’s Nathan Seppa, the bustling community included farmers tasked with cultivating maize, artisans who crafted ornate clay vessels and sculptures, and even ancient astronomers who tracked the passage of time with the help of Stonehenge-like timber circles.

Cahokia grew from a small settlement established around 700 A.D. to a metropolis rivaling London and Paris by 1050. But just 200 years later, the once-thriving civilization had all but vanished, abandoning its patchwork collection of monumental earthworks for still-unknown reasons.

Theories regarding Cahokia’s demise run the gamut from environmental disasters to political clashes with neighboring groups. Given the lack of concrete evidence left behind by the Mississippians, scholars will likely never know exactly what led them to leave their home.

Still, new research appears to rule out at least one oft-cited explanation: As Glenn Hodges reports for National Geographic, a team led by Caitlin Rankin, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has found that the soil surrounding one of Cahokia’s mounds remained stable until the mid-1800s—centuries after the Mississippians’ departure. The analysis, published in the journal Geoarchaeology, refutes the idea that Cahokia’s inhabitants overharvested wood from the surrounding forests, sparking erosion and flooding that rendered the area uninhabitable.

Archaeologist Caitlin Rankin conducts excavations at Cahokia. (Matt Gush)

“In this case, there was evidence of heavy wood use,” says Rankin in a statement. “But that doesn’t factor in the fact that people can reuse materials—much as you might recycle. We should not automatically assume that deforestation was happening, or that deforestation caused this event.”

Rankin began conducting excavations at Cahokia in 2017, when she was a doctoral student at Washington University in St. Louis, notes National Geographic. Upon studying soil samples collected near a creek at the site, she was surprised to find no traces of sediments associated with flooding. If the city’s ancient residents had, in fact, driven its ecosystem to doom through deforestation, the swath of low-lying land in question would almost certainly have flooded.

As Rankin tells National Geographic, the land overuse theory’s prevalence stems partly from Western-centric worldviews that conflate European colonizers’ exploitation of resources with Native American practices.

“That’s a Western mentality of resource exploitation—squeeze everything out of it that you can,” she explains. “[But] that’s not how it was in these Indigenous cultures.”

Scholars Neal Lopinot and William Woods of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville first proposed the land overuse theory in 1993. On the surface, the explanation makes sense: Cahokia’s infrastructure required ample amounts of wood, which was used to construct palisades, or log walls, as well as residential buildings and timber circles, according to Lee Bey of the Guardian. But while the Mississippians may have cut down tens of thousands of trees, the soil samples analyzed by Rankin suggest that these actions weren’t intensive enough to trigger civilization-ending flooding.

Reconstructed palisades, or log walls, at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Joe Angeles / Washington University)

Because Cahokia’s inhabitants had no written language, researchers trying to puzzle out the metropolis’ mysteries must rely mainly on archaeological evidence. Clues come in many forms—among them human poop, as Lorraine Boissoneault wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.

A.J. White, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent the past several years studying coprostanol, a molecule produced in the gut when digesting food, to glean insights on Cahokia’s population over time. Last January, White and his colleagues published a study that similarly contradicts dominant narratives about the pre-Hispanic city. Far from remaining a “ghost town” in the centuries between its abandonment and modern rediscovery, Cahokia actually welcomed a new set of residents as early as 1500, per Kiona N. Smith of Ars Technica.

“[W]e were able to piece together a Native American presence in the area that endured for centuries,” said White in a 2020 statement.

Lopinot, one of the researchers who first raised the land overuse theory, tells National Geographic that he welcomes Rankin’s new take on the topic.

Ultimately, Lopinot adds, “Cahokia’s decline wasn’t something that happened overnight. It was a slow demise. And we don’t know why people were leaving. It might have been a matter of political factionalization, or warfare, or drought, or disease—we just don’t know.”

Cahokia Sprawled Over Five Square Miles

Like cities in other parts of the world, Cahokia, which sprawled over an area of about five square miles, developed in a highly desirable spot. The settlement was situated along a flood plain that provided fertile soil for agriculture, with nearby hickory forests to provide wood and other raw materials as well as wildlife to hunt, according to Lori Belknap, site manager for the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

Cahokia also had convenient access to the nearby Mississippi River, which its residents𠅊 people known as the Mississippian culture—navigated in large dugout canoes. “It likely was a trading center,” Belknap says.

Like a modern city with suburbs, Cahokia’s outer edge was a residential area, consisting of houses made from sapling frames lined with clay walls and covered by prairie grass roofs. Further inside was a log palisade wall and guard towers, which protected a central ceremonial precinct of the site, including Monks Mound, the Grand Plaza and 17 other mounds. More than 100 mounds extended more than a mile outside the wall in all directions. Some served as bases for what probably were important community buildings, while other cone-shaped mounds functioned as burial sites. Still others apparently were markers that delineated the city’s boundaries, according to Belknap.

At the center was the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, the largest earthen mound in North America, which had four terraces and a ramp or stairway leading up from the ground. From the top of the mound, one could take in a panoramic view of Cahokia and its surrounding realm.

One of the most remarkable things about Cahokia is that it appears to have been carefully planned around 1000 A.D., with a rectangular-shaped Grand Plaza whose core design mirrors the native vision of the cosmos, according to archaeologist Thomas Emerson. From the beginning, the city’s builders had “grandiose visions of what Cahokia would be,” Emerson explains. “It did not grow by slow accretion through time.”

The events that led to the deliberate building of Cahokia and the rapid growth of its population remain unclear. 𠇊 religious prophet? The immigration of a foreign elite group? The introduction of maize?” Emerson says. “The options seem endless, but we have few answers right now.”

Cahokia’s decline, which began around 1250 or 1300, and culminated in the site’s abandonment by 1350, are similarly mysterious. A recent study suggests the settlement’s demise was linked to climate change since a decrease in rainfall would have affected the Mississippians’ ability to grow their staple crop of maize. Others think that the sheer size and diversity of the Cahokian population may have led to irreconcilable rifts.

“It was a large population, composed of immigrants from the midcontinent who brought very different practices and beliefs to the city,” Emerson says. “The management of differences requires a strong social and political consensus within a group. If that consensus collapses, societies will fragment into their smaller groups that existed based on kinship, ethnicity, religious beliefs, residential propinquity, shared economic goals, etc.”

Initial Archaeological Survey of the ex-USS Independence (CVL-22)

The Boeing Company, collaborating with NOAA to address innovative ways to make ocean observations, provided their autonomous underwater vehicle, Echo Ranger, to conduct the first deep-water archaeological survey of the scuttled aircraft carrier USS Independence in the waters of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in March 2015. While a preliminary effort, and not comprehensive, the survey confirmed that a sonar feature (previously not proven to be an archaeological feature) charted at the location was Independence, and provided details on the condition of the wreck. At the same time, new information from declassified government reports provided more detail on Independence’s use as a naval test craft for radiological decontamination as well as its use as a repository for radioactive materials at the time of its scuttling in 1951. The wreck is historically significant, but also of archaeological significance as an artifact of the early years of the atomic age and of the Cold War. This article summarizes Independence’s contexts, its nuclear history, and the results of the survey of the wreck site.

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New study debunks myth of Cahokia’s Native American lost civilization

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds Historic State Site. Painting by William R. Iseminger.

A UC Berkeley archaeologist has dug up ancient human feces, among other demographic clues, to challenge the narrative around the legendary demise of Cahokia, North America’s most iconic pre-Columbian metropolis.

In its heyday in the 1100s, Cahokia — located in what is now southern Illinois — was the center for Mississippian culture and home to tens of thousands of Native Americans who farmed, fished, traded and built giant ritual mounds.

By the 1400s, Cahokia had been abandoned due to floods, droughts, resource scarcity and other drivers of depopulation. But contrary to romanticized notions of Cahokia’s lost civilization, the exodus was short-lived, according to a new UC Berkeley study.

UC Berkeley archaeologist A.J. White digs up sediment in search of ancient fecal stanols. (Photo by Danielle McDonald)

The study takes on the “myth of the vanishing Indian” that favors decline and disappearance over Native American resilience and persistence, said lead author A.J. White, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in anthropology.

“One would think the Cahokia region was a ghost town at the time of European contact, based on the archeological record,” White said. “But we were able to piece together a Native American presence in the area that endured for centuries.”

The findings, just published in the journal American Antiquity, make the case that a fresh wave of Native Americans repopulated the region in the 1500s and kept a steady presence there through the 1700s, when migrations, warfare, disease and environmental change led to a reduction in the local population.

White and fellow researchers at California State University, Long Beach, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northeastern University analyzed fossil pollen, the remnants of ancient feces, charcoal and other clues to reconstruct a post-Mississippian lifestyle.

Their evidence paints a picture of communities built around maize farming, bison hunting and possibly even controlled burning in the grasslands, which is consistent with the practices of a network of tribes known as the Illinois Confederation.

Unlike the Mississippians who were firmly rooted in the Cahokia metropolis, the Illinois Confederation tribe members roamed further afield, tending small farms and gardens, hunting game and breaking off into smaller groups when resources became scarce.

The linchpin holding together the evidence of their presence in the region were “fecal stanols” derived from human waste preserved deep in the sediment under Horseshoe Lake, Cahokia’s main catchment area.

Fecal stanols are microscopic organic molecules produced in our gut when we digest food, especially meat. They are excreted in our feces and can be preserved in layers of sediment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Because humans produce fecal stanols in far greater quantities than animals, their levels can be used to gauge major changes in a region’s population.

A.J. White and colleagues paddle out onto Horseshoe Lake. (Photo courtesy of A.J. White)

To collect the evidence, White and colleagues paddled out into Horseshoe Lake, which is adjacent to Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, and dug up core samples of mud some 10 feet below the lakebed. By measuring concentrations of fecal stanols, they were able to gauge population changes from the Mississippian period through European contact.

Fecal stanol data were also gauged in White’s study of Cahokia’s Mississippian Period demographic changes, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. It found that climate change in the form of back-to-back floods and droughts played a key role in the 13th century exodus of Cahokia’s Mississippian inhabitants.

But while many studies have focused on the reasons for Cahokia’s decline, few have looked at the region following the exodus of Mississippians, whose culture is estimated to have spread through the Midwestern, Southeastern and Eastern United States from 700 A.D. to the 1500s.

White’s latest study sought to fill those gaps in the Cahokia area’s history.

“There’s very little archaeological evidence for an indigenous population past Cahokia, but we were able to fill in the gaps through historical, climatic and ecological data, and the linchpin was the fecal stanol evidence,” White said.

Overall, the results suggest that the Mississippian decline did not mark the end of a Native American presence in the Cahokia region, but rather reveal a complex series of migrations, warfare and ecological changes in the 1500s and 1600s, before Europeans arrived on the scene, White said.

“The story of Cahokia was a lot more complex than, ‘Goodbye, Native Americans. Hello, Europeans,’ and our study uses innovative and unusual evidence to show that,” White said.

Co-authors of the study are Samuel Munoz at Northeastern University, Sissel Schroeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Lora Stevens at California State University, Long Beach.

‘Its decline is a mystery’

During its prime, Cahokia would have bustled with activity. Men hunted, grew and stored corn, and cleared trees for construction. Women tended to the fields and homes, made pottery, wove mats and fabrics, often performing work and social activity in the small courtyards and gardens outside each grouping of homes.

Sacred meetings and ceremonies – the city’s purpose – took place on the plazas and in buildings inside the palisade. “There was a belief that what went on on Earth also went on in the spirit world, and vice versa,” says James Brown, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Northwestern University. “So once you went inside these sacred protocols, everything had to be very precise.”

The Mississippians oriented Cahokia’s centre in a true east-west fashion, using site lines and the positions of the sun, moon and stars to determine direction accurately. West of Monk’s Mound, a circle of tall posts used the position of the rising sun to mark the summer and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes. The posts were re-erected and dubbed Woodhenge by archaeologists who began researching the area in 1961.

Excavations since the 60s have yielded fascinating information about this ancient city. Scholars have found artistic stone and ceramic figurines Brown was part of team that discovered a small copper workshop adjacent to the base of one of the mounds. “Inside was a fireplace with coals, where copper could be pounded out and annealed,” he says. “They pounded it out, heated it to allow the crystals in the cooper to realign, and when they quenched this in water, you’d have something that resembled an ornament, a bead.”

The Cahokia site covered an area of nine square miles. Illustration: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Archaeological work has also discovered a mound containing mass burials. While the extent of it is debated, it appears the Mississippians may have conducted ritual human sacrifices, judging by what appears to be hundreds of people, mostly young women, buried in these mass graves. Some were likely strangled others possibly died of bloodletting. Four men were found with their heads and hands cut off another burial pit had mostly males who had been clubbed to death.

The people of Cahokia themselves may have both doled out and received a lot of this violence, since researchers have found no specific evidence of warfare or invasion from outsiders. Emerson says he has excavated other Native American sites that were filled with arrowheads left behind by war by comparison, at Cahokia there were almost none. “It’s interesting,” he adds. “At Cahokia the danger is from the people on top not other people [from other tribes or locations] attacking you.”

But William Iseminger, archaeologist and assistant manager at Cahokia Mounds, points out there must have been some continuing threat to the city, whether from local or distant sources, that necessitated it being built and rebuilt four times between 1175 and 1275. “Perhaps they never were attacked, but the threat was there and the leaders felt the need to expend a tremendous amount of time, labour and material to protect the central ceremonial precinct.”

The story of Cahokia’s decline and eventual end is a mystery. After reaching its population height in about 1100, the population shrinks and then vanishes by 1350. Perhaps they had exhausted the land’s resources, as some scholars theorise, or were the victims of political and social unrest, climate change, or extended droughts. Whatever, the Mississippians simply walked away and Cahokia gradually was abandoned.

Tales of Cahokia don’t even show up in Native American folklore and oral histories, Emerson says. “Apparently what happened in Cahokia left a bad taste in people’s minds.” The earth and the mounds provide the only narrative.

Cahokia ATA-186 - History

Imagine an ancient Native American settlement where people built pyramids, designed solar observatories and, we must report, practiced human sacrifice.

These weren't the Maya or Aztecs of Mexico. This culture arose in the Mississippi Valley, in what is now Illinois, about 700 A.D. and withered away about a century before Columbus reached America. The ancient civilization's massive remains stand as one of the best-kept archaeological secrets in the country.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Welcome to the city of Cahokia, population 15,000.

North America was dotted in those days with villages, strung together by a loose web of commerce. An Indian trader paddling down the Mississippi River during the city's heyday between 1000 and 1150 couldn't have missed it.

Cahokia was the largest city ever built north of Mexico before Columbus and boasted 120 earthen mounds. Many were massive, square-bottomed, flat-topped pyramids -- great pedestals atop which civic leaders lived. At the vast plaza in the city's center rose the largest earthwork in the Americas, the 100-foot Monks Mound.

Around the great urban center, farmers grew crops to feed the city-dwellers, who included not only government officials and religious leaders but also skilled tradesworkers, artisans and even astronomers. The city was the center of a trading network linked to other societies over much of North America. Cahokia was, in short, one of the most advanced civilizations in ancient America.

Nature dictated that the settlement rise near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Geographers affectionately call the lowlands that hug the eastern bank of the Mississippi there the "American Bottom." This fertile strip was carved and flooded summer after summer by torrents of glacial melt-off 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.

As the glaciers receded and rivers shrank to their current size, the 80-mile-wide bottom was exposed. Native Americans who settled there after 700 A.D. considered this easy-to-till land prime real estate for growing corn, since they lacked the steel plows and oxen needed to penetrate the thick sod blanketing the surrounding prairie.

Cahokia arose from this mini-breadbasket as its people hunted less and took up farming with gusto. By all evidence, they ate well.

"Some people have referred to it as a Garden of Eden," says archaeologist John E. Kelly, who has researched the area for 26 years. But like other Cahokia scholars, Kelly hesitates to call it that because he knows the city's dark side.

Despite their town's size, Cahokians seemed to live in fear, building a high stockade around it to keep out the world. Also, the culture suffered an environmental debacle that probably spelled doom: It was utterly abandoned before Columbus ever set sail for the Americas.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The earliest written records of Cahokia refer to the site after it had been vacant for 300 years. French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet missed the mounds in 1673 and reported finding no Indians in the area. French monks found Cahokia's mounds in the mid-1700s and later named the biggest one after themselves. But mystery still shrouded the site.

The Illini Indians in the region told Europeans that they did not know who had built the mounds. As late as this century, experts debated whether the mounds were the product of people or nature. In 1921, archaeologists erased all doubt, but learned little about who had built them.

To this day, no one knows the Cahokians' ethnicity, what language they spoke, what songs they sang or even what they called themselves. The name "Cahokia" is a misnomer. It comes from the name of a sub-tribe of the Illini who didn't reach the area until the 1600s, coming from the East.

Although Cahokia must have had a complex culture to maintain a sizable city and raise monuments that stand a millenium later, no one knows whether the mystery people's culture influenced surrounding cultures or simply stood alone.

The causes of the culture's demise are better understood, although researchers argue where its people went.

First, some context. Before Cahokia's rise, people had been living in many parts of North America for thousands of years, making a living as gatherers of edible wild plants and hunters of animal meat. More than 4,000 years ago, Indians in much of the current United States cultivated squash, sunflower and other plants to supplement wild foods. Between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, corn cultivation spread northward from Mexico, where the plant was domesticated.

As a corn-based economy grew in the fertile Mississippi Valley, providing a reliable food source all year, populations rose and villages grew. About 1000 A.D., Cahokia underwent a population explosion.

Along with corn, Cahokians cultivated goosefoot, amaranth, canary grass and other starchy seeds. Preserved seeds of these species have been found in excavations at Cahokia. Although the people farmed without the wheel or draft animals, corn production soared and surpluses may have been stored in communal granaries on the mounds.

To keep the growing populace orderly and, perhaps more important, to manage corn surpluses, Cahokia developed a ranked society with a chief and elite class controlling workers in lower classes. By the 1000s and 1100s, when mound-building began in earnest, Cahokia was a beehive of activity.

"It became this political vortex, sucking people in," says Timothy Pauketat, an anthropologist and Cahokia specialist at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
The rulers lived atop the mounds in wooden houses and literally looked down on others. They almost surely consolidated power the way leaders of many early societies did, not by hoarding but by giving away goods. Since there was no money, commerce was by barter.

Cahokians had an affinity for ornamentation, favoring beads made from sea shells collected more than a thousand miles away. These were traded extensively and probably exchanged to cement allegiances and to pacify outlying groups, several of which lived downriver. Gift-giving could have quelled tension between tribes and kept the peace, says George Milner, a Pennsylvania State University anthropologist.

Generosity also boosted status. Within Cahokia, such trading and gift-giving probably bought fealty. Ornamental items were passed from generation to generation. In the long run, people in and around the urban center grew up having a stake in perpetuating the hierarchy. Once the first few generations were in place, children grew up knowing nothing else.

"Social systems became entrenched," says William Iseminger, archaeologist and curator at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which includes the main plaza and 65 of the remaining 80 mounds.

Power and position were passed by birthright. The local caste system was similar to social arrangements seen later in other Native American groups along the Mississippi and to the southeast, generally called Mississippian cultures. It was even in evidence hundreds of years later when Spaniard Hernando de Soto led an army along the Gulf Coast in the 1540s. Indians in Mexico had such social systems, too, although no direct connections have been found between them and any Mississippians.

Meanwhile, Cahokia sat conveniently at the center of the trade network. It harbored a minor hardware industry, manufacturing hoes with flint blades and axes with shaped stone heads. Trade was extensive, but it's not as though armadas of canoes were streaming into and out of Cahokia.

Excavations at surrounding sites shows that the amount of Cahokian hardware dwindles steadily as one moves farther from the city, suggesting a fairly small radius of trade and few large trade missions to faraway places, Milner says. Still, Cahokia attracted copper from mines near Lake Superior salt from nearby mines shells from the Gulf of Mexico chert, a flintlike rock, from quarries as far as Oklahoma, and mica, a sparkling mineral, from the Carolinas.

Not all strangers were friendly traders, it seems. In the early 1100s, Cahokians built a two-mile stockade around their city, with guard towers every 70 feet. The first was double-walled. Three times over the centuries, it was rebuilt in single-walled fashion.

The mounds within probably were erected gradually at ceremonial gatherings over centuries. Cahokian pyramids contain various types of soil, some traceable to locations nearby. "It's like a layer cake with 30 or 40 layers," Pauketat says. Even though some years only a few centimeters were added, the final product was impressive.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Monks Mound required more than 14 million baskets of soil, all hauled by human workers. Its base covers 14 acres.

Many of Cahokia's original mounds were destroyed by modern farming, road building and housing developments. The remaining 80 mounds still hold many ancient secrets because archaeologists have dug into fewer than two dozen. Among these, Mound 72 stands as one of the grisliest archaeological finds in North America.

Under it were found the remains of a tall man buried about the year 1050. He died in his early 40s and was laid to rest on about 20,000 shell ornaments and more than 800 apparently unused arrows with finely made heads. Also in the grave were a staff and 15 shaped stones of the kind used for games.

"Clearly, some really important leader is buried in there," Pauketat says. Interred with him were four men with their heads and hands cut off and 53 young women apparently strangled. Their youth, 15 to 25 years, and the fact that they were all women, suggests human sacrifice. People that young did not die of natural causes in such numbers.

Nearby, researchers found more burials and evidence of a charnel house. In all, 280 skeletons were found. About 50 lay haphazardly in a single deep pit, as if tossed in without honor. Some have arrowheads in the back or were beheaded, evidence of warfare or perhaps a crushed rebellion.

"I would guess there were people around who weren't too loyal," Pauketat says.

Mound 72 has provoked considerable debate among anthropologists. Some say the four men without hands or heads represent the four cardinal directions on a compass. To others, the sacrifices evoke comparisons to Mayan and Aztec cultures. Some suspect that those thrown in a pit were objecting to the sacrifices.

No one knows. Mound 72 is the only Cahokian burial site excavated with modern archaeological care. About 20 other mounds were dug up in the 1920s, using careless methods and leaving few notes.

In any case, the huge number of people sacrificed to accompany a leader on his way to the afterlife is unparalleled north of Mexico. No other site even comes close.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
To be fair, however, Cahokians didn't spend all of their time building mounds, adorning themselves or sacrificing their neighbors. The digs that have taken place every summer since 1960 -- into garbage pits, along the stockade or at housing sites -- have revealed much else.

One of the most dramatic finds is that some Cahokians were astronomers. Outside the stockade, they built a ring of posts that, when aligned with an outer post, pointed toward the horizon at the exact spot on which the sun rises on the spring and fall equinoxes. Archaeologists dubbed this "Woodhenge," in deference to England's Stonehenge, also a solar calendar.

Instead of stone, Cahokians used red cedar posts 15 to 20 inches in diameter and about 20 feet long. Several woodhenges were built over the centuries, and the third 48-post ring has been reconstructed.

Aligned with the key post, the equinox sun appears to rise directly out of Monks Mound. Other posts aligned with sunrise on the summer and winter solstices. Why it was rebuilt several times is unclear. "Perhaps as Monks Mound got bigger, they had to build updated woodhenges," Iseminger speculates.

The leaders may have used Woodhenge to demonstrate their connection with the sun or some other mystic unknown, says Bruce Smith, director of the archaeobiology program and a curator at the Smithsonian Institution. "Through Woodhenge, and dealing with the sun, they could solidify their position as middlemen or arbiters and show the general populace how the sun moved, and predict it," he says.

That the Cahokians had time enough to build many mounds and several woodhenges comes as no shock to anthropologists. "You'd be surprised how much free time people had before industrialization," says Robert Hall, archaeologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Unfortunately, Cahokians' clever ways did not extend to wise environmental management.

As population grew, the ratio of people to arable land also rose. In the American Bottom, a small increase in water levels could have rendered much farmland useless. Wanton tree cutting along nearby bluffs caused unchecked erosion, making cropland too marshy for corn, Milner says. Worse, a global cooling trend about 1250, called the "Little Ice Age," may have hurt the growing season.

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Deforestation required longer walks for firewood. Charred remains show that Cahokians burned oak and hickory in the early years but used energy-poorer soft woods later, a sign of problems, Iseminger says. The stockade alone required as many as 20,000 poles. Tree cutting certainly destroyed wildlife habitat. And how many deer would live near a concentration of 15,000 people, many armed with bows and arrows?

Quite possibly, dysentery and tuberculosis rose to epidemic proportions, since Cahokians apparently had no sanitary systems for disposing of garbage and human waste, Peter Nabokov and Dean Snow suggest in their book, America in 1492.

Meanwhile, city life could have grown tiresome, archaeologists say. People resent having their lives managed by others. Other Mississippian cultures developed ranked societies similar to that of Cahokia. None stayed together more than 150 years, Pauketat says.

For Cahokians, the grass evidently looked greener elsewhere. Buffalo, arriving from the West, reached areas just across the Mississippi in the 1200s and 1300s, Hall says. The choice may have been to compete with thousands of neighbors for firewood and eat corn and fish or to live differently, following the migratory buffalo and eating red meat.

All of these "centrifugal forces," in whatever combination, grew strong enough to fling people away from Cahokia over time, Smith concludes. Their society "devolved" and gradually returned to small-village life, becoming archaeologically invisible because they left too little evidence to be traced 700 years later.

By the 1200s, as the city's population and influence dwindled, chiefdoms downriver began to grow. Their threat may have been what spurred Cahokians to build the stockade, and they may have competed for trade goods that had been flowing into Cahokia.

A larger question lingers: What is Cahokia's rightful place in the history of North America? Two theories emerge, illustrated in part by the mounds.

Many Native American cultures built mounds. Until 1000, earthworks typically were burial or effigy mounds. Flat-topped temple mounds, with buildings on them, came into vogue with Cahokia. Mounds often were the village centerpiece and have become their builders' signature across time. Cahokia's mounds were bigger than the rest, but did this make them greater people?

Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Some argue that Cahokians are like John Hancock, whose moment of glory came 600 years after theirs. To them, the Cahokian signature was, like Hancock's, simply bigger than the rest, but not representative of anything more advanced or creative. "I don't think Cahokia was qualitatively different" from these other settlements," Smith says. "It was the same framework of organization, writ large."

Others, including Hall, suspect that Cahokia practiced a "cultural hegemony," meaning that it had a cultural influence beyond areas it could control militarily. It likely had profound impacts on people up and down the river.

"It challenged the world view of people in the boonies," Pauketat says. "They'd come to Cahokia and . . . wow."

For Native Americans, none of whom can claim Cahokia as their own tribe, the site needs no interpretation or explanation, says Evelyne Voelker, a Comanche and executive director of the American Indian Center of Mid-America in St. Louis. "We've never questioned that somehow there is ancestry there," she says.

Voelker performs purification blessings at Cahokia when archaeologists begin a dig. She takes cedar incense -- cedar mixed with pine sap and sage -- and sprinkles it on a fire before spreading the sweet smoke with an eagle feather. "It's a prayer to beg pardon for things being disturbed," she says.

Every September, Native Americans have a celebration at Cahokia featuring intertribal dance and music. They treat the site with considerable pride and reverence.

Voelker is not big on archaeologists, saying, "I don't particularly like their line of work." But she and they share an awe of the place that once was one of the greatest cities in North America.

Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published August 6, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)


Ever since the first Europeans came to North America, only to discover the puzzling fact that other people were already living here, the question of how to understand the Native American past has been both difficult and politically charged. For many years, American Indian life was viewed through a scrim of interconnected bigotry and romance, which simultaneously served to idealize the pre-contact societies of the Americas and to justify their destruction. Pre-Columbian life might be understood as savage and brutal darkness or an eco-conscious Eden where man lived in perfect harmony with nature. But it seemed to exist outside history, as if the native people of this continent were for some reason exempt from greed, cruelty, warfare and other near-universal characteristics of human society.

As archaeologist Timothy Pauketat's cautious but mesmerizing new book, "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi," makes clear, Cahokia -- the greatest Native American city north of Mexico -- definitely belongs to human history. (It is not "historical," in the strict sense, because the Cahokians left no written records.) At its peak in the 12th century, this settlement along the Mississippi River bottomland of western Illinois, a few miles east of modern-day St. Louis, was probably larger than London, and held economic, cultural and religious sway over a vast swath of the American heartland. Featuring a man-made central plaza covering 50 acres and the third-largest pyramid in the New World (the 100-foot-tall "Monks Mound"), Cahokia was home to at least 20,000 people. If that doesn't sound impressive from a 21st-century perspective, consider that the next city on United States territory to attain that size would be Philadelphia, some 600 years later.

In a number of critical ways, Cahokia seems to resemble other ancient cities discovered all over the world, from Mesopotamia to the Yucatán. It appears to have been arranged according to geometrical and astronomical principles (around various "Woodhenges," large, precisely positioned circles of wooden poles), and was probably governed by an elite class who commanded both political allegiance and spiritual authority. Cahokia was evidently an imperial center that abruptly exploded, flourished for more then a century and then collapsed, very likely for one or more of the usual reasons: environmental destruction, epidemics of disease, the ill will of subjugated peoples and/or outside enemies.

Some archaeologists might pussyfoot around this question more than Pauketat does, but it also seems clear that political and religious power in Cahokia revolved around another ancient tradition. Cahokians performed human sacrifice, as part of some kind of theatrical, community-wide ceremony, on a startlingly large scale unknown in North America above the valley of Mexico. Simultaneous burials of as many as 53 young women (quite possibly selected for their beauty) have been uncovered beneath Cahokia's mounds, and in some cases victims were evidently clubbed to death on the edge of a burial pit, and then fell into it. A few of them weren't dead yet when they went into the pit -- skeletons have been found with their phalanges, or finger bones, digging into the layer of sand beneath them.

In "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi," Pauketat tells the story of what we now know, or can surmise, about the intriguing and bloody civilization that built Cahokia -- which looks comparable to a Mesopotamian or Greek city-state -- and also the tragic story of why it was overlooked and misunderstood for so long. Reading his book, one constantly marvels at the hair-raising archaeological discoveries that fly in the face of conventional understandings of Native American life, and mourns for how much more that could have been discovered is now lost or destroyed.

Only about 80 of the 120 or so burial and/or temple mounds on the Cahokia site still exist, and satellite mound-cities on the sites of present-day St. Louis and East St. Louis -- both of which included large central temple pyramids -- were completely razed by settlers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the archaeological digs at Cahokia have been quick and dirty, with the bulldozers of motel developers or highway builders revving up nearby. In the 1940s, suburban tract housing was built right through the middle of the 22,000-acre Cahokia site, and as recently as the '60s, one homeowner dug an in-ground swimming pool into the ancient city's central ceremonial plaza. (Those houses, and the pool, have since been removed.)

Even a generation ago, many archaeologists and anthropologists would have found the phrase "Native American city" bizarre and self-contradictory. Scholarly conceptions weren't all that far away from pop culture depictions: American Indians lived light on the land, mostly in hunter-gatherer societies augmented by minimal subsistence agriculture. While they may have had "ceremonial centers" along with seasonal villages and hunting and fishing camps, they didn't live in large or permanent settlements.

Such scholarship, Pauketat implies, reflected a sanitized, politically correct version of long-standing prejudice about the human possibilities of Native Americans. Well into the 19th century, many white Americans refused to believe that the "savages" they encountered in their ruthless drive across the continent could have built the impressive mounds or earthen pyramids found at numerous places in the Midwest and Southeast. Cahokia is by far the biggest such site, but by no means the first. There are several mound complexes in the Deep South that predate the time of Christ, and one in Louisiana has been dated to 3,400 B.C., well before the building of the Egyptian or Maya pyramids.

Even though early explorers like Hernando de Soto had personally encountered mound-building tribes in the 16th century, most mound sites were abandoned by the time white settlers arrived (probably because European microbes had preceded actual Europeans). This led to the idea that some ancient, superior "Mound Builder" civilization -- variously proposed to be Viking, Greek, Chinese or Israelite in origin -- had originally settled the continent before being overrun by the wild and warlike American Indians. (Relics of this hypothesis can be found today in fringe black-nationalist groups who claim that Cahokia and similar sites were the work of ancient Africans.)

Then there was the problem that Cahokia was constructed more than nine centuries ago from materials available in the Mississippi Valley -- earth, timber, thatched leaves and grasses -- and had been abandoned to weather, rot and erosion for 400 years by the time Americans began to notice it. There was no way to ignore the monumental stone cities built by the Aztecs or Maya once you stumbled upon them, but Cahokia presented itself to modern eyes as an ambiguous but not especially compelling assortment of overgrown mounds, hillocks and ridges.

In fairness, frontier lawyer Henry Brackenridge, who visited Cahokia in 1811, described it as a "stupendous monument of antiquity" and the former site of "a very populous town," and understood that it was certainly of Indian origin. (Cahokia is a name borrowed from the Illini tribe, who lived nearby in historical times. No one knows what the Cahokians called their city.) Brackenridge's insights were so thoroughly neglected that a century later many scholars who had moved away from outlandish fantasies about ancient Greeks or Hebrews contended instead that Cahokia consisted of anomalous natural formations, and hadn't been built by humans at all. That theory was finally put to rest with archaeologist Warren King Moorehead's 1921 excavations at a site called Rattlesnake Mound, where he trenched up huge piles of human remains.

Moorehead's crude, large-scale digging techniques often did more harm than good, Pauketat observes, but he did spur the first efforts to preserve the site from ruthless development -- and he at least began the lengthy process of asking and answering questions about who was buried in the mounds at Cahokia, and why. Based on the evidence collected by later archaeologists, it's likely that the 140 or so bodies Moorehead found in Rattlesnake Mound were sacrificial victims in one or more of Cahokia's "mortuary rituals," public ceremonies that even Pauketat, abandoning his tone of anthropological neutrality, deems "ghastly" and "bizarre."

You may well wonder how Pauketat or anybody else can possibly know the details of the religious practices of a preliterate people who vanished 600 years ago, leaving no known descendants and relatively few enduring artifacts. Of course the answer is that archaeologists don't know things like that to a scientific degree of certainty, and some of Pauketat's ideas -- connecting prominent Cahokia burials to a widespread Native American legend about supernatural twin brothers, for instance, or positing a connection between Cahokian civilization and those of Mesoamerica -- are both speculative and controversial.

But beginning in the late 1950s, a series of gruesome archaeological discoveries have left little doubt that during Cahokia's heyday -- which began with an unexplained "big bang" around the year 1050, when a smaller village was abruptly razed and a much larger city built on top of it, and continued for roughly 150 years -- its ruling caste practiced a tradition of "ritualized killing and ceremonious burial." As Pauketat details, few excavations in the archaeological record can match the drama and surprise of Melvin Fowler, Al Meyer and Jerome Rose's 1967-70 dig at an unprepossessing little ridge-top construction known as Mound 72.

This mound contained a high-status burial of two nearly identical male bodies, one of them wrapped in a beaded cape or cloak in the shape of a thunderbird, an ancient and mystical Native American symbol. Surrounding this "beaded burial" the diggers gradually uncovered more and more accompanying corpses, an apparent mixture of honorific burials and human sacrifices evidently related to the two important men. It appeared that 53 lower-status women were sacrificed specifically to be buried with the men -- perhaps a harem or a group of slaves from a nearby subject village, Pauketat thinks -- and that a group of 39 men and women had been executed on the spot, possibly a few years later. In all, more than 250 people were interred in and around Mound 72.

As Pauketat puts it, even at the time the diggers understood they had found something momentous. "There, in the middle of North America, more than five centuries before European armies and diseases would arrive to take their own murderous toll, was evidence of large-scale acts of premeditated violence." In retrospect, Pauketat sees an even more important conclusion emerging from Mound 72 and other Cahokia excavations: evidence of a metropolitan Native American society "characterized by inequality, power struggles and social complexity." These people were neither half-feral savages nor eco-Edenic villagers they had lived and died in a violent and sophisticated society with its own well-defined view of the universe.

As mentioned earlier, some of Pauketat's tentative conclusions about the origins and legacy of Cahokian civilization are no more than educated guesses. He believes that the possible twin-brother kingly burial in Mound 72 may provide a historical basis for the widespread Midwestern and Plains Indian stories about a hero, sometimes called Red Horn or He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings, and his two sons. He further believes that Cahokian-Mississippian culture must be related to the temple-building, human-sacrifice civilizations of Mexico and Central America, although the archaeological record suggests no clear connection.

He seems on firmer intuitive ground in suggesting that outlying agrarian villages, whose populations were ethnically and culturally distinctive, much poorer than Cahokians and predominantly female, may have provided the Cahokia elite with sacrificial victims. But Pauketat's masterstroke may be his reanalysis of an obscure dig conducted in the '60s by Charles Bareis, who found an enormous 900-year-old Cahokian garbage pit, so deeply buried that its contents still stank atrociously.

Analyzing the strata of rotting gunk found therein, Pauketat concludes that there was probably an upside to Cahokia's appalling "mortuary rituals," which he suspects were officious public ceremonies  to honor the ruling family or to install a new king. The garbage dump reveals the remains of enormous Cahokian festivals, involving as many as 3,900 slaughtered deer, 7,900 earthenware pots, and vast amounts of pumpkins, corn, porridge, nuts and berries. There was enough food to feed all of Cahokia at once, and enough potent native tobacco -- a million charred seeds at a time -- to give the whole city a  near-hallucinogenic nicotine buzz.

There's no way to know for sure whether these multiple-day, citywide shindigs were simultaneous with the human-sacrifice rituals, but it's highly plausible, and they were certainly part of the same social system. (Pauketat also finds in the trash heap evidence of "spectacular pomp and pageantry.") At any rate, if you weren't personally being decapitated and thrown into a pit to honor some departed leader, life in Cahokia evidently came with some benefits that, like almost everything else about the city, were unprecedented in the Native American world.

It's possible that the ritual brutality of Cahokia's leaders ultimately led to their downfall, and Pauketat clearly hopes to be among the archaeologists who resolve that mystery. But for a century and a half this fascinating and troubling state seemed to function pretty well, and the reasons for that, he suggests, are not mystical but material, and not mysterious but recognizably human. Cahokia forged a new sense of community out of these rituals, one that merged church and state, and Cahokians "tolerated the excesses of their leaders," as most of us do, as long as the party kept going. 

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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They fit right into American history

Modern life is not far away: Cahokia is framed by a middle-American sprawl of interstate highways and suburbia. But it wasn't modern development that ended Cahokia's thrilling story.

Eventually, Cahokians simply chose to leave their city behind, seemingly impelled by a mix of environmental and human factors such a changing climate that crippled agriculture, roiling violence or disastrous flooding. By 1400, the plazas and mounds lay quiet.

When Europeans first encountered the remarkable mounds at Cahokia, they saw a lost civilisation, explains Newitz in Four Lost Cities. They wondered if some faraway people had built Cahokia, then disappeared, taking with them the brilliant culture and sophistication that had once thrived in the soil of the Mississippi bottomland, where the earth is enriched by riverine floods.

In 1050 AD, the Native American cosmopolis of Cahokia was bigger than Paris (Credit: MattGush/Getty Images)

But the people of Cahokia, of course, didn't disappear. They simply left, and with them Cahokia's influence wove outward to far-flung places, where some of their most beloved pastimes are cherished to this day.

The yaupon they loved to drink is making a mainstream comeback as a sustainable, local tea that can be harvested from the forest. Chunkey – Cahokia's favourited game – never went away either. In some Native communities it has attracted a new generation of young athletes and is on the roster with stick ball and blow guns at Cherokee community games.

But it's more than that. Cahokians loved to kick back over good barbecue and sporting events, a combination that, Newitz noted, is conspicuously familiar to nearly all modern-day Americans. "We party that way all across the United States," they said. "They fit right into American history.

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Cahokia ATA-186 - History

From: Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships

An Indian tribe belonging to the Illinois Confederacy. II

ATA - 186: dp. 835 l. 143' b. 33'10"

dr. 13'2" s. 13 k. cpl. 45 a. 1 x 3"

The second Cahokia (ATA-186) was laid down as ATR-113, reclassified ATA-186 on 15 May 1944, and launched 18 September 1944 by Levingston Shipbuilding Co., Orange, Tex. and commissioned 24 November 1944, Lieutenant J. T. Dillon, USNR, in command. She was assigned the name Cahokia 16 July 1948.

Cahokia sailed from Galveston, Tex., 23 December 1944, for the Canal Zone, San Francisco, and then for Pearl Harbor 4 March 1945, and assumed towing duty between Ulithi, Manus, Leyte, the Russell Islands, and Okinawa, until 8 September when she arrived in Tokyo Bay. She supported the occupation of Japan until 14 October, when she sailed from Yokosuka for Okinawa, arriving 17 October. She had duty at Okinawa, with a brief period at Shanghai and Jinsen until 22 April 1946. On 4 May Cahokia departed Sasebo for Manus and Pearl Harbor. After almost a month in Pearl, she sailed for San Francisco, arriving 15 July for duty with the 12th Naval District.

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